The past and unfortunately “history” is something that cannot be empirically known. When it comes to kung fu history this is even more so. Nevertheless, I will share my view on the creation of Taijiquan which has been formulated based on my experience with the internal arts.
Zhang Sanfeng was trained in Buddhism and martial arts in the Shaolin temple, later he went on to practice and study Daoist internal alchemy on Wudang mountain. It is not uncommon at all for Buddhists to turn to Daoism and for Daoists to turn to Buddhism in order to complete their training. This open attitude is especially seen within the Quanzhen or complete reality school. In the view of Quanzhen, sectarianism is a hindrance; and both Buddhism and Daoism in their pure forms are pointing to the same truth and the same attainment. It is the Quanzhen school of which Zhang Sanfeng was an adherent. He went on to become one of the most well known of the Immortals and he is considered to have achieved the highest level of spiritual attainment in Chinese history.
The common folklore talks of Zhang Sanfeng having a dream about or observation of a snake and crane having a fight and thus realizing the principles by which he would create Taijiquan. It is also said that Zhang Sanfeng combined his knowledge of Shaolin kung fu with Daoist internal alchemy to create Taijiquan. The final version is that he received the art in a vision from Xuan Wu (“the mysterious warrior”).
It is my view that all three of these folk stories are pointing at a different aspect of the truth. Being a very achieved meditator Zhang Sanfeng could no doubt commune with the varying beings, Bodhisattvas and Immortals, and likely did receive the essence of Taijiquan from Xuan Wu, just as Taiji lore tells us. When one receives information it is always filtered through one’s perceptions and experience. After receiving the essence of the art one must embody it in reality. The story of the crane and snake fighting is referring to the arts which Zhang Sanfeng had mastered in the Shaolin temple, namely Snake style and Crane style. He went on to use this knowledge and experience, combined with his mastery of Daoist alchemy, as the experiential filter through which he received the art from Xuan Wu. Thus founding the profound art of Taijiquan as a method of self defense and most importantly as a method of cultivating essence and life.
So-called “history” is just a perception of things past and certainly nothing worth arguing over; the true treasure of these arts is always found in our application within the present moment.